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Where the Light Gets In: A Conversation with Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie

on March 18, 2016, 12:45pm

“Existential fucking stasis. Spiritual stasis. It’s about the inability to communicate and love.” Bobby Gillespie and his intoxicating Glaswegian drawl are on it today, raw and open enough for me to sift through every inch of his brain. And while discussing Primal Scream’s new album, Chaosmosisthe frontman delivers wisdom in a quirky calm — but still with a gritty insistence that would knock your teeth out. But that’s what a legendary band like this needs to keep coming back, that duality of intensity and harmony.

I’m sure you’ve heard voices grumbling about the epidemic of band reunions. It’s been obnoxiously loud for years – I see you Blur and Ride moaners — but Primal Scream took a cue from the final song on their last album, 2013’s More Light: “Take your time, walk away, you can come back if you’re supposed to.” And they did, and they are. As its title suggests, Chaosmosis is an album about the uncomfortable, impossible freedom of change while in a crisis — paeans to difficult relationships, the kind that shift, bend, and break. Whether you’re 18 or 88, it’s hard not to relate to the basic sentiments here, though mawkish at times, but who doesn’t lament the inevitability of love ending, even while you’re still together?

Whether you know them for pioneering rave culture in 1991 during their acid house genre-peaking opus, Screamadelica, or for grating, industrial shards of techno all over XTRMNTR, Primal Scream have spent decades soaking up the world around them and oscillating between blues, krautrock, and new wave. Chaosmosis finds them absorbing another reinvention and working (yet again) with an open-door policy that includes collaborators like Sky Ferreira, HAIM, and Swedish producer Björn Yttling of the band Peter, Björn and John.

Next year will be 30 years since their 1987 debut, Sonic Flower Groove, but Gillespie isn’t sentimental, nor is he looking too far ahead. “It could at times be a very precarious band to be in,” he says. “I never saw any kind of future.” It’s all about today for Primal Scream, and in 2016 they find themselves working in the field of pop, using conventional pop song structures to get a darker twist. “Not darker,” he quickly adds. “More depressive realism. Ecstatic depressive realism!”

Consequence of Sound spoke to the chatty Primal Scream frontman, not only about Chaosmosis but also getting clean eight years ago and the state of pop music in 2016.

Primal-Scream-Chaosmosis-album-stream-listen

Usually when there’s quite a space between records, people just assume you’re not making music or you’re not working. Does it get frustrating when people constantly question why it’s taken so long to come out with a record?

Absolutely, because you know we toured our last album throughout 2013, and in the first week of January 2014, we were back in the studio. So this record was killer! By the end of July, we had mostly written the whole album, and that was in 2014 alone.

Are you surprised that the band continues to go on in the first place? Primal Scream have been a band for over 30 years now. Was there ever a moment during those years where you thought maybe you wouldn’t ever make another Primal Scream record?

I was never sure of it all. I just lived in the moment, and I never saw any kind of future. I hoped that we could continue to make music, but I never took it for granted. Primal Scream could at times be a very precarious band to be in, just talking about the mortality of some of the personalities. Saying that, it feels so good that we are still here and still producing good work.

I think the important thing there is that you’re constantly exploring new corners of your sound. Do you still get as excited about music?

I still get so excited about music, super thrilled by hearing other artists who are doing good stuff. New stuff that’s inventive and full of imagination and energy. When Andrew Innes and myself make some music that we both think is really good, it always surprises us. Not surprised, but I’m happy that we’re still pushing.

Is there something that you tap into, or do you find music consistently inspiring?

It’s completely natural. It’s an interesting art, you know. I see music as art. When someone can express themselves really well — musically well — then I’m always very touched by that. I think it’s an incredible thing to be able to express yourself that way. It’s really that simple. I’ve got an appreciation for good art.

Does creativity have a life form of its own? Appreciating art is a process and an experience, and getting creatively blocked can also happen when you’re so absorbed in art. Do you ever get creatively blocked?

There is definitely a particular formula and way to do it. If you spend time touring and playing live, you have to take some time off to revitalize yourself. The most important thing is that you need time away from the studio. That’s what we do. If you’re in the studio all the time, it would be too much. You would run out of ideas. You need to live, you need to get out in the world, and you need to widen your frame of references. Read more books, go to more galleries, and build up material that you can write about. For us, it’s been instrumental to spend a couple of years at home, writing and recording and not touring so much. If your touring all the time, it becomes institutionalized and boring, like a job where you’re clocking in and clocking out.

And for this album, you decamped to New York, London, and Stockholm. Did you have a sense of that freedom while you were working there?

Good point. Freedom has not been tied to a band. Andrew and myself can go to Stockholm and write songs and make music. We don’t have the baggage like many bands. As artists, we can make music using whoever and whatever instruments we find. When we play live, that’s a different story. Kind of like what David Bowie did. I’m not putting us up there with David Bowie, but he never let himself be tied to a band, and just knowing how limitless that can be is inspiring.

Collaborations are also easier to do now that talent is readily accessible with just one click.

It’s always just me, Andrew, and a bass player in New York. The other people come in later, like Sky Ferreira and HAIM, who came on as production choices. It’s more that the music is written, and they come in after to do the vocals. It’s just the sweetening on the top.

Bobby Gillespie and Sky Ferreira (1)

That’s true. You’ve always used different rhythm sections on every album. The rhythm section on Screamadelica was Andy Weatherall and Hugo Nicolson. On Give Out But Don’t Give Up, it was the Muscle Shoals …

We have different bass players as well as drummers, too. Really what it is all about is what’s best for the song. Just like if you were making a movie and you were the director, you’d want to choose the correct actor.

In terms of the different narratives that you have within each album … Your upcoming release is called Chaosmosis, which sums up the atmosphere of the album and the world quite perfectly, really. It also seems to sum up the fact that you seem to be quite drawn to reflection. What does this portmanteau mean?

A guy who I highly admire by the name of Franco “Bifo” Berardi, who is an Italian writer, once referenced another French philosopher named Félix Guattari who had talked about “chaosmosis.” It seemed to me like the term was a very weird description of the creative process where you absorb everything if you’re an artistic person. You absorb all the information, the data overload of the modern world, and it’s kind of hard to decode and decipher it. Instead of letting that stuff drag you down and make you depressed, you can turn it into an artwork. You can take that negativity and turn it into something spiritual for other people to be inspired by. Put some light back into a dark world. That’s what it means to me.

Since More Light and its political referencing, there has been a noticeable shift. Once the songs started appearing, did it feel like a catharsis of some kind?

I guess you can say the word “chaosmosis” is another word for making art. Getting all of this trauma I had and trying to make it into something beautiful, turning a defeat into a victory.

Do you feel less self-conscious about your writing process now than you did years ago?

Definitely, a lot clearer and more direct with my thoughts and ideas.

So what did you do to get there?

I got clean. I stopped doing drugs eight years ago, and that definitely gave me clarity and a confidence. I began reading a lot and widening my frame of reference. I became less self-conscious and more confident about writing words because I took more time over those words. On the last album you mentioned, More Light, I deliberately took time, and some of the songs took two or three years just to finish. I was waiting on a light and just waited until I got it.

On “Golden Rope”, you repeat the line, “And I know there is something wrong with me.” Is that personal, or are you acknowledging that we’re all kind of flawed in a really normal sort of way?

Oh, it’s completely personal to me. I meant it solely about myself. That’s how I felt about myself. I didn’t think and just repeated those lines because there was no need for any other words. I couldn’t see further than that.

So what was the stylistic shift you were aiming for this time then? The difference between “Where the Light Gets In”, “Golden Rope”, and the album closer, “Autumn in Paradise”, seems to be a summation of the sounds you’ve been playing with your entire career.

That’s the Primal Scream sound – it’s a distillation of our sound. We are working at crafting a pure pop song constantly. It’s not easy at all. But we’re working in the field of pop using conventional pop song structures on this album, and we’re trying to get a darker twist on it. Not darker, but more depressive realism. Ecstatic depressive realism!

I wasn’t surprised when reading that you collaborated with Sky Ferreira, as you had already been working with and producing tracks for her next record.

We started working with her during Spring/Summer 2014 already, and that was great. I already had the idea for Sky way before we had worked with her. In my head, at least. In Winter 2013, I thought I’d like to make a song with Sky Ferreira after coming up with a melody I thought would be perfect.

A natural inclination when listening to an album is to try and create some sort of narrative around the songs. Is this record less focused on heartbreak and more about that combination of sadness and joy, being stuck in a bit of a spiral that you can’t get out of?

I think the lyrics are more about the pain of living with someone, but you’re really apart, and it’s a terrible situation that people find themselves in. For various reasons, they can’t move out of the situation. I just felt that it was interesting to write about people living together, alone. What the hell is that! A lot of love songs are about people breaking up, but I think its way more painful to be stuck. You want to leave, but you can’t leave, and you don’t know how to work it out, and it becomes very cold and distant. You don’t have that common language where you can communicate. It’s almost like you have broken speech because you both speak a different language, and you cant express how you feel. It’s like you’re emotionally illiterate.

The song “Private Wars” sticks out as one of those songs where you might have been stretching yourself more than before. “Thorns grow in your heart/ Poisoned from the start/ Angry still at everyone/ Time to let it go…”

That’s the song I was thinking about. It really is addressed to an individual. It’s not about two people. It could be a conversation with yourself, a defiant conversation. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a song of empathy for people in pain who don’t know how to beat that pain. Existential fucking stasis. Spiritual stasis. It’s about the inability to communicate and love.

I think, honestly, people find it hard to talk to each other. They can talk about football matches or the concert on TV, but people find it hard to open up and reveal themselves. Especially emotionally, even the most erudite, literate people find it hard to forge relationships. It’s like we’re afraid. A lot of us are walking around with a lot of fear in us, and that song deals with fear and how it can cripple you.

How beneficial is pop music in 2016? Is it still a viable medium? 

I don’t think it can change society, but it still has the function to uplift and inspire people.

Is it at a healthy point?

I don’t think that pop or rock music has the cultural gravitas it had in the ’60s or ’70s. I don’t know how relevant it is anymore. It just seems to be pure entertainment. I think pop music is dangerous when it’s art. At the moment, I don’t know if there’s any hugely successful pop artist who are doing real art. There’s people like Taylor Swift, which is pure pre-pubescent entertainment. I think maybe rock reached its peak of importance in the ’70s. I’m not saying it was better. I’m talking about cultural importance.

Is that disheartening at all? I know on “Don’t Fight It Feel It” from Screamadelica, the idea behind that was to make an acid house, soul experimental track and celebrate what the culture of dancing and going to clubs could do. Is there pressure as an artist like Primal Scream to come from that era?

No, no, no, not at all. I don’t feel any artistic responsibility to try and make good music. I don’t feel responsible for anything other than making music. I just write about what I’m feeling and what affects me. As an artist, you’ve got to be of your time.

Do you feel like once you’ve released a song, it exists separately from you, or does it rehash things every time you sing it? 

Every time we play the song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”, I just go, “Oh, my god. I love it so much!” I just feel like it’s a real song about a real situation that happened to me, and it’s happened to a lot of other people, and it feels relevant every time we play it. You know we wrote it in 1989? I think it’s a good piece of art. Once you release a song and it goes out in the world, other people own it. If they like the song, the song takes on a meaning purely personal for them, but when you make a piece of art, it’s a gift to the world. It’s an act of love to humanity … I really believe that.

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